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Book Club Kits: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: a year of food life

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Book Summary

Bestselling author Barbara Kingsolver returns with her first nonfiction narrative that will open your eyes in a hundred new ways to an old truth: You are what you eat.

Hang on for the ride: With characteristic poetry and pluck, Barbara Kingsolver and her family sweep readers along on their journey away from the industrial-food pipeline to a rural life in which they vow to buy only food raised in their own neighborhood, grow it themselves, or learn to live without it. Their good-humored search yields surprising discoveries about turkey sex life and overly zealous zucchini plants, in route to a food culture that's better for the neighborhood and also better on the table. Part memoir, part journalistic investigation, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle makes a passionate case for putting the kitchen back at the center of family life and diversified farms at the center of the American diet.

Read an excerpt from the novel

Discussion Questions

1. What was your perception of America's food industry prior to reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle? What did you learn from this book? How has it altered your views on the way food is acquired and consumed?

2. In what ways, if any, have you changed your eating habits since reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle? Depending on where you live --- in an urban, suburban, or rural environment --- what other steps would you like to take to modify your lifestyle with regard to eating local?

3. "It had felt arbitrary when we sat around the table with our shopping list, making our rules. It felt almost silly to us in fact, as it may now seem to you. Why impose restrictions on ourselves? Who cares?" asks Kingsolver in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Did you, in fact, care about Kingsolver's story and find it to be compelling? Why or why not? What was the family's aim for their year-long initiative, and did they accomplish that goal?

4. The writing of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was a family affair, with Kingsolver's husband, Steven L. Hopp, contributing factual sidebars and her daughter, Camille Kingsolver, serving up commentary and recipes. Did you find that these additional elements enhanced the book? How so? What facts or statistics in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle surprised you the most?

5. How does each member of the Kingsolver-Hopp family contribute during their year-long eating adventure? Were you surprised that the author's children not only participated in the endeavor but that they did so with such enthusiasm? Why or why not?

6. "A majority of North Americans do understand, at some level, that our food choices are politically charged," says Kingsolver, "affecting arenas from rural culture to international oil cartels and global climate change." How do politics affect America's food production and consumption? What global ramifications are there for the food choices we make?

7. Kingsolver advocates the pleasures of seasonal eating, but she acknowledges that many people would view this as deprivation "because we've grown accustomed to the botanically outrageous condition of having everything always." Do you believe that American society can --- or will --- overcome the need for instant gratification in order to be able to eat seasonally? How does Kingsolver present this aspect in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle? Did you get the sense that she and her family ever felt deprived in their eating options?

8. Kingsolver points out that eating what we want, when we want comes "at a price." The cost, she says, "is not measured in money, but in untallied debts that will be paid by our children in the currency of extinctions, economic unraveling, and global climate change." What responsibility do we bear for keeping the environment safe for future generations? How does eating locally factor in to this?

9. Kingsolver asserts that "we have dealt to today's kids the statistical hand of a shorter life expectancy than their parents, which would be us, the ones taking care of them." How is our "thrown-away food culture" a detriment to children's health? She also says, "We're raising our children on the definition of promiscuity if we feed them a casual, indiscriminate mingling of foods from every season plucked from the supermarket." What responsibility do parents have to teach their children about the value and necessity of a local food culture?

10. In what ways do Kingsolver's descriptions of the places she visited on her travels --- Italy, New England, Montreal, and Ohio --- enhance her portrayal of local and seasonal eating?

11. "Marketing jingles from every angle lure patrons to turn our backs on our locally owned stores, restaurants, and farms," says Kingsolver. "And nobody considers that unpatriotic." How much of a role do the media play in determining what Americans eat? Discuss the decline of America's diversified family farms, and what it means for the country as a whole.


Interview on NPR

 Back to Basics: Kingsolver Clan Lives off Land

April 29, 20077:27 PM ET

A Y: A Year of Food Life," is a departure from her popular from her popular works of fiction like "The Poisonwood Bible" or "The Bean Trees."

This is the true story of her family's experiment with learning to eat deliberately, as she puts it. That means eating only local foods in season. They had to produce the food themselves or knew exactly where it came from. To begin this journey, Kingsolver, her husband and two daughters left their home in Tucson, Arizona and moved to a family farm in Virginia.

Barbara Kingsolver joins us now from that farm in Meadowview, Virginia. Hi, Barbara. Good to have you with us.


: And you co-wrote this book with your daughter, Camille Kingsolver, and your husband Steven Hopp. And Steven is joining you now as well. Steven, good to have you, too.

STEVEN HOPP: Thank you, Lynn.

: Now, I wanted to begin by asking you, you sound like a family that always cared about food. You already had some experience with gardening. You all seem to be good cooks. But what was it that ultimately made you want to take this particularly eating journey, Barbara?

KINGSOLVER: Well, I grew up in a rural part of Kentucky that was a community of farmers. So the production of food has always been very real to me and something I understood to be very important. And it surprised me to grow up and move out into a world that increasingly had lost touch with the origins of its food.

: I learned that the whole adventure begins with the wait. You had to wait for spring and you had to wait for asparagus.

KINGSOLVER: That's right. Initially, we didn't know what we were waiting for. We had decided to do this for one calendar year. And January 1st, when it came, did not look like such a good time to start. So we understood that if we were going to do this for a whole year, we would have to get through some lean time sooner or later, but we kept pushing that for later.

So this question really started to lean on us. What are we waiting for? And we decided we were waiting for asparagus. It's the earliest vegetable, and it seemed like a good harbinger of local foods. And the wonderful thing is that when you really concentrate on what you have and what's fresh, when you cut it and cook it immediately, you understand that it was worth the wait.

: Let me ask you about that first trip to the market. Because it happened on a very cold day, I think there was even a little snow maybe, and I think you didn't know what you were going to find at the market that day.

KINGSOLVER: Our first day at the farmer's market, I think was really - it was a really a metaphor for the whole year. We went down there expecting nothing, and we found so much. We found enough to make a week of good meals. And we came to see the changing seasons as something like a menu of ever- changing options from which to choose to make our meals.

: One of the things that you talk about is the importance of cooking in all of this, that you really can't eat this way unless you take the time to cook. I wonder - let's talk about this practically now for other families. I mean, would this apply even for families where both parents worked. They come home at night; they're tired - could they still do this?

KINGSOLVER: You know, I've been a working mother for 20 years. We're a working household. It's a nice fantasy that in the movies, I think, novelists only work for 15 minutes a day. But in our house, it is a pretty busy life we lead. And if you noticed, almost all of the recipes we include in our book are things you can throw together in 30 minutes or less.

An important thing to ask is what do people in other countries do? Are Italians too busy to cook, to cut the pasta by hand, by make - to make wonderful meals, even though in modern Italian families both parents usually work? Are French working couples too busy to make food? The answer is no. Why we believe we are too busy is the question of food culture. It's a question of what we've chosen to do instead, what we believe is more important.

: How would a city dweller, for example, who's never had a garden, has no space for one, really has no experience with, sort of, the rhythms of nature that you're talking about, the sort of seasonal rhythms of growing vegetables, for example - how would someone like that learn to shop this way for food, go to a grocery store - that's the only place they can go - and understand what they should or should not buy if they want to eat this way?

KINGSOLVER: It isn't necessary to live on a food-producing farm to eat mindfully, but it is important to know that farms exist, to know something about what they do and to consider yourself basically in their court. So what we're hoping for is that some readers of this book who really have lost any sense of what foods are in season, what is the rhythm of seasonal eating, might begin to learn some of the secret natural histories of foods and find that fascinating from reading this book and be moved to take another step.

: Would you say that your eating habits had changed forever?

KINGSOLVER: Absolutely.

HOPP: Absolutely.


: That was a - that was two voices at once.


HOPP: Well, it's interesting that one of the questions that we've heard is, well, at the very end, what did you do to celebrate - as if we terminated it, we all ran out and got moon pies and Coca-Cola the next day. And we did, and in fact, we didn't notice that we had ended and we finally realized we had passed that point in time. And it really is a change of lifestyle that I think the benefits of become clear once you're in it.

KINGSOLVER: It began as an experiment, but it ended as our life, and we have no intention of changing it. It gets better all the time because we keep discovering new ways to use local foods. And, as we and our neighbors all invest in our local food economy, it gets better. Farmers this year are bringing new things to the market that they didn't have last year because they can trust there are going to be a lot of us who are hungry for it.

: Barbara Kingsolver and her husband Steven Hopp - their new book, "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life," was published by Harper Collins. They joined us from their farmhouse in Meadowview, Virginia. Thanks so much for being with us.

KINGSOLVER: Thank you.

HOPP: Thank you.

: To read an excerpt from her book and try out Barbara Kingsolver's recipe for eggs in a nest, go to our Web site,


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